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Scarborough's criticism of Sansom is personal, notable

Even after House Speaker Ray Sansom announced this week that he is quitting a controversial job at a state college, his No. 1 Republican critic fumed with outrage.

"If I were in Ray's position, and I cared about the conservative cause and what was best for the Republican Party, I would step down as speaker," MSNBC's Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough said in an interview this week.

A few days earlier, Scarborough had penned his second newspaper column in three weeks in which he condemned Sansom for having accepted the job in the first place.

The criticism is personal and notable, coming from a fellow Republican and former congressman whose words still carry weight among the Panhandle voters who launched both men's political careers.

Scarborough considers Sansom an ally. But he uses words such as "arrogant" to describe the Destin Republican, who took the $110,000 job at Northwest Florida State College on the same day in November that he was sworn in as speaker.

Controversy about the job has enveloped Sansom since the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau published stories revealing that in recent years Sansom arranged for the school to reap millions in project money from a state fund.

Scarborough thinks Sansom should stay in the House for his remaining two years but give up one of the most powerful positions in state government.

"As speaker of the House, you carry a tremendous burden because you are the face of the party," Scarborough said in a half-hour interview with the Times/Herald.

Sansom declined to comment, as he has done repeatedly as the controversy has deepened. He now faces at least two formal ethics complaints, and a prosecutor in Tallahassee has said he will ask a grand jury later this month whether it wants to investigate.

By the time Scarborough weighed in last month, editorial writers statewide already were blasting Sansom for taking the job after funneling millions in tax dollars to the school. But Scarborough's celebrity and aggressiveness added a new dimension.

"It is maddening to see what power does to some men," Scarborough wrote in the Pensacola News Journal on Dec. 17. A second column came this week, after Sansom announced that he is quitting the college job.

Scarborough mocked the Republican lawmakers who showered Sansom with praise for being "statesmanlike" in relinquishing the job, branding them cowards for not speaking out.

Scarborough said their failure to act is tainting the GOP brand. "Voters are going to start asking whether this is a failing of Ray Sansom or whether this is just business as usual with their state representative or senator."

When the story first broke, Scarborough fell back on his Panhandle instincts — assuming the controversy was a product of South Florida chauvinism.

Then he read a Times/Herald report detailing an e-mail exchange between Sansom and college president Bob Richburg in which they agreed to set up a secretive meeting of the college board of trustees, which is required by law to meet in public.

The meeting happened in the spring as Sansom and Richburg worked behind the scenes to advance legislation allowing the college and a few others to offer more bachelor's degrees. In the e-mail exchange, Richburg suggests holding the meeting in Tallahassee while meeting the pubic notice requirements by taking out an ad in a newspaper in faraway Okaloosa County.

"When your boss says 'I understand about Sunshine Laws but this is how we can get around it,' and Ray responds by saying 'that's a great idea' with exclamation points … those e-mails are beyond damning," Scarborough said.

Scarborough said he has known Sansom for 15 years, has traveled in the same political orbit and is good friends with Sansom's brother and sister-in-law. Scarborough said his own wife wishes he hadn't taken his criticism public.

"Whether she admits it or not, she knows I'm right," he said.

Scarborough said he has not contacted Sansom, nor has Sansom called him since the columns. He said public reaction has been unanimous: "It's all been positive."

He said he has long warned his party against complacency, including in a 2004 book, Rome Wasn't Burnt in a Day, in which he took the national GOP to task for abandoning its principles. He compares Sansom's problems to those of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who ultimately was deposed by his own party.

"I actually think it's much worse than the Gingrich situation," Scarborough said. "No one ever accused Newt Gingrich of passing legislation for personal financial gain."

Scarborough's criticism of Sansom is personal, notable 01/09/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 10:37pm]
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